On Sunday 19 August, the Choir will present its next Great Hall concert, a program of sacred music by Schubert (1797-1828), under the title ‘A Heavenly Schubertiade’.
In her beautifully written, prize-winning memoir of 2011, ‘Piano Lessons’, the fine Australian pianist, Anna Goldsworthy, quotes some highly pertinent words about Schubert by her Russian piano teacher, Eleonora Sivan:
What is the tragedy in Schubert?…two things: first of all, his intuition of death. Some sort of premonition that he will have death at a young age. On the other hand, he is so happy to live. Like a young child…Schubert was in some ways most unluckiest composer. Unlucky with life: no money, no fame, no recognition. Of course, he had vision of his music’s future: he knew it would be immortal…..And one other thing…. Not very right thing to say, perhaps, but he was very unbeautiful man.
The works in our Concert predate the tragedy in the life of this precociously gifted but doomed composer, who wrote some of his greatest music in his teens (the lieder, Gretchen am Spinnrade and Der Erlkönig, for example), contracted syphilis in his early twenties, and died miserably at 31, although writing wonderful music right up to the end. Beginning in autumn 1814, in a three-year period, the teenage Schubert composed five symphonies, four Masses, three string quartets, three piano sonatas, six operas and some 300 songs. Schubert did not invent the lied, but made it into a new art form and revealed its full potential. In his eighteenth year, he composed almost 150 songs.
Sacred music occupies a significant place in Schubert’s output, although his total of religious compositions is not large. Schubert received his first musical instruction in the parish of Liechtenthal, now a suburb of Vienna. He attended Mass regularly as a child and may have continued to do so as an adult, particularly when living with his family and he remained loyal to the Liechtenthal congregation throughout his life. His early Masses are believed to have had their first performances there. For Schubert, church music was not a matter of duty, but rather sprang from very personal religious convictions which were frequently in opposition to the official dogma of the church. A sceptical approach towards the official church predominates in his letters and diary notes. This scepticism is reflected in the omission of several sections of the Credo in his Masses, although this practice was not unique to Schubert in that period.
A number of his religious works, including some on today’s program, date from the earliest part of his compositional career, that is to say, bearing in mind the words of Anna Goldsworthy quoted above, before his joy in life was clouded by any premonition of death. His early Masses bear an obvious affinity to the Austrian Missa brevis tradition practised most conspicuously by Mozart, and are marked by remarkable technical assurance for such a young composer.
Schubert’s second Mass (in G Major, D. 167), which begins the choral part of our program, dates from March 1815, although it was not published until 1846, nearly twenty years after Schubert’s death. It was apparently composed from start to finish in six days. The autograph score shows astonishingly few corrections. The G Major Mass did not become known in wider circles until after Schubert’s death. It was his brother, Ferdinand Schubert, who added the instrumental parts of the trumpets and timpani while Franz was still alive. Somewhat later, Ferdinand added the oboes (or clarinets) and bassoons as well. However, the version with purely string accompaniment and organ is authentic and will be performed in today’s concert. With predominantly homophonic textures, it is Schubert’s shortest and most intimate Mass setting.
The Mass in C, D.452 (composed June-July 1816 and published 1825) is more closely modelled on the examples set by Haydn and Mozart and, with its greater harmonic richness, sounds like the product of a more mature composer (Schubert, after all, was nineteen by this time!). Contemporary criticism judged the C major Mass coolly, with the snobbish comment that ballads suited the young Viennese composer better than church music. That Schubert, however, valued this Mass a great deal, is indicated by the fact that, three years before his death, on the occasion of its first documented performance on 8 September 1825 in Vienna, he had it published under the opus number 48 with a dedication to his teacher Michael Holzer, the choirmaster of the Liechtenthal church “in friendly remembrance”, and composed a new Benedictus for it in the year of his death (this later version of the Benedictus is being performed in our concert). Thus, the Mass in C is the only one of Schubert’s Masses published during his lifetime.
Perhaps the most impressive of these early sacred works of Schubert is the Magnificat D.486, which strikes and sustains a tone of grandeur and mastery. The first page of the autograph score is marked “Sept[ember] 1815,” and more precisely at the end of the work “25. September 1815”. It was not published until 1888. The exact motive for writing this Magnificat is unknown. It was probably intended for a performance in the Liechtenthal parish church. Schubert once again shows his penchant for textual unorthodoxy by omitting two of the verses from St Luke’s Gospel, which provides the usual text of the Magnificat.
The Tantum ErgoD.461 is the earliest work we perform in our concert, dating from 1814 and published in the composer’s lifetime in 1825. The text of this hymn was composed by St. Thomas Aquinas and, along with O Salutaris Hostia, is strongly associated with Eucharistic Adoration, particularly the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Schubert’s beautiful setting of Psalm 23 dates from December 1820. Interestingly, it is based on a translation into German by Mendelssohn’s grandfather, the Enlightenment philosopher, Moses Mendelsssohn. The Salve Regina D. 676, dating from November 1819, is the only work on our program produced after Schubert’s teenage years. The Salve Regina was apparently written with the voice of Theresa Grob, the daughter of friends of Schubert’s father in mind (it is possible that the high B flat required from the soprano soloist in the Magnificat was included to suit Theresa, who apparently had a voice that could encompass high D).
Our program also includes the Overture in C Minor, which bears the extraordinarily early Deutsch catalogue number of 8, indicating that it was composed even earlier than any of the other works presented. This overture, a reworking of an early string quintet, which has disappeared, also indicates the young composer’s capability to express drama in his music, of the kind that he would soon achieve with Gretchen am Spinnrade and Der Erlkönig.
It will be apparent from this account that very little of Schubert’s music was published or performed publicly in his life-time and he made very little income from his compositions, but was dependent throughout his life on the fees he could earn from patrons and dedicatees, from the publication of his songs and keyboard compositions, and occasional teaching or performing. He never achieved financial security, since, at that time, fame as a performer, not merit as a composer, was the key to publication.
Schubert aspired to be a freelance professional composer in Vienna, but was considerably less successful than Mozart had been in realizing this ambition. His works were mainly performed at house concerts, known as ‘Schubertiades’, organized by members of his circle of friends, at which Schubert played and sang. (One of these Schubertiades is the subject of a picture by the painter, Moritz von Schwind [1804-71], a member of the composer’s circle). In the entry on Schubert in Grove, M.J.E. Brown says that the Schubertiades were “symptomatic of a new and vigorous social phenomenon, the cultivation of music by the educated middle classes”. Brown contrasts this development with the patronage of music by the nobility. Development of middle-class artistic sensibilities was the essential feature of the so-called Biedermeier era between 1815, the year of the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and 1848, the year of the European revolutions. Schubert was the quintessential Biedermeier composer.
The miraculous nature and scale of Schubert’s achievement only became fully apparent after his death. A major role in its revelation was played by Robert Schumann, who, with the assistance of the composer’s brother, Ferdinand, discovered the manuscript of Schubert’s Symphony No.9 in C Major, now known as ‘the Great’, during a visit to Vienna. Schumann took the orchestral parts back with him to Germany and the work was first performed in March 1839 by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Mendelssohn, who thus made a major contribution to rescuing Schubert from obscurity, as he had done for Bach by his performance of the Matthew Passion in Berlin ten years earlier.